Director: Frederick Wiseman
Cast: N/A
Spoilers Within: No

Film 12 – #110 in ‘The Hard Drive Randomiser’

Documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman takes us inside the Massachusetts Correctional Institution Bridgewater where people stay trapped in their madness.” So says the IMDb synopsis for Titicut Follies: a distressingly candid insight into the workings of a hospital for the criminally insane in the late 1960s, following various inmates as they cope with squalid conditions and recurrent bullying from many of the institutions’ staff.

Historically, Wiseman had made a verbal agreement with the facility’s superintendent to document the institution in a favourable light, but once distribution began it was apparent to both superintendent and staff that they had been a part of a narrative that painted them in authentic – rather than staged – way. The frequent goading and open indifference by the majority of the wardens and nurses is on full display, but it’s also part of the mid century’s notion that these practices were widely accepted as correct. In response to this, the government of Massachusetts filed an injunction against Wiseman and the film, and after a back-and-forth legal battle, Titicut Follies was banned and destroyed, marking the first instance American film industry history that a feature was outlawed from distribution for “reasons other than obscenity, immorality or national security.”

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This starkly straightforward approach to Wiseman’s directing and John Marshall’s filming that landed them in all sorts of trouble was proof positive that they were witness to a whole swathe of callous mistreatment toward those who either unable to defend themselves or were assaulted (whether psychologically or actually) if they could. They document but never interfere. Morally, this lack of conflict would be hard to stomach if made now, especially as Titicut Follies doesn’t offer a great deal to say that isn’t already discernible from the synopsis and its place in time, but considering the era in which this was made the content is enough to deliver genuine moments of shock, without feeling exploitative on either party. The doctors and nurses thought what they were doing was acceptable, which is a large part of the reasoning to why they were happy to be filmed. Wiseman’s film serves as a vessel to expose the harsh conditions that the institution was enforcing on its occupants: from living in bare cells to being washed periodically, to being tied down and force-fed through a tube. None of it is an easy watch, but it offers a cultural timestamp that changed the course of treatment in institutions such as these.

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Wiseman has a massive body of documentary filmmaking: 41 of his 44 releases(none of which I’ve seen) are examinations of social affairs (such as Domestic Violence, Meat and Welfare) that, if Titicut Follies is anything to go by, take an impartial and unobstructed road to their conclusion. It’s hauntingly bleak and often frightening (real-life nightmares of being trapped in a mental institution pleading your sanity are visible in one patient in particular) but Titicut Follies is rightly considered as one of the most important works of documentary filmmaking in the history of cinema, and should – like it had been in the past – be used as an educational tool to highlight this culturally contrasting period.

Rating: A-